Thursday, October 17, 2013

Monmartre on West 46th Street -- Clinton Court

In 1936 a writer called the courtyard "almost too picturesque."

In the mid-19th century the gritty West Side of Manhattan from the 30s to the upper 50s developed as warehouses, slaughterhouses, factories and docks drew immigrant workers to the area.  Ramshackle wooden buildings became havens of crime and street gangs terrorized railroads, businesses and residents alike.  The neighborhood earned the apt but unflattering nickname Hell’s Kitchen.

Although the jobs offered in the industrial area were low-paying, they provided a steady income for struggling families.  Tenements to house the laborers cropped up; the “dwelling” at No. 420 West 46th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues built in 1850 was probably a multifamily structure.    The red brick building with stone trim would sit alone for two decades until Robert Auld constructed No. 422 next door in 1871. 

A local builder, he left a six-foot wide passage to the rear of the building.  Wider than a “horse walk”—the skinny pathways or tunnels that led to back lots—yet too narrow for a vehicle; the alley provided access to the three-story structure Auld simultaneously built in the rear.

Small buildings behind houses or commercial structures were common in the 19th century.  Homes often had smaller houses (used as rental income) or stables on the back lots.   Robert Auld’s rear building was  intended as a stable of sorts—there were horse stalls on the lower level.   The original purpose of the upper floors is unclear—they were possibly storage for hay and supplies; or could have been used as living quarters for stable boys or grooms. 

Highly unusual was Auld’s building facing the street.    City records show stables on the ground floor with tenement rooms above. 

In 1886 The Real Estate Record and Guide reported that “On Wednesday, March 3, John F. B. Smyth will sell the four-story and basement dwelling No. 420 West Forty-Sixth street.”  A few days later the publication recorded the sale price as $12,000 – about $275,000 today.    By now the little back building was home to Jacob Michels who listed his occupation as “milkman.”

Life in the tenements was harsh and there was little relief from relentless mid-summer heat.  On June 17, 1891 the temperature had reached 82.5 degrees by 10:30 a.m.  Victorian clothing—long skirts and corsets for females and wool suits on men—only exacerbated the situation.   By 1:00, according to The New York Times, the temperature had risen to 92 “but in the ensuing hour it did not go higher than 92.  That was the figure of the Signal Service instrument; the instrument on the street, which more accurately indicated the sufferings of pedestrians, stood at the same time at 93.”

That morning 55-year old Peter Zimmembere left his apartment at No. 422 West 46th Street.  He would not return home that evening.  The Times reported that he had died “due to the heat.”

Far from the West 46th Street tenements were the mansions of Manhattan’s wealthy.  The city’s gentry escaped the suffocating heat by summering in their country homes.  In 1901 the elite summer community of Plainfield, New Jersey, was plagued by a rash of robberies.  Many of the wealthy estate owners were from New York City and, as it turned out, so were the thieves.   Detectives followed the trail of the crook from Plainfield back to No. 420 West 46th Street.

On June 13 the Plainfield Chief of Police, James Keely, crossed the river and with the aid of two New York detectives, arrested 33-year old James Simpson here.   Simpson had been aided in his burglary spree by Sarah Speers, just 23-years old.

“They found two trunks filled with goods in Simpson’s rooms,” reported The Times, “which they seized and took to Police Headquarters.

“The trunks contain all sorts of goods.  There are clocks, dresses, suits of men’s clothing, bric-a-brac, jewelry, and other articles, the value of which could not be estimated.  Much of the contents of the trunks is rich and costly.”

While Simpson was robbing summer houses, William Brown lived next door at No. 422 earning an honest living.  The 26-year old was a cartman (the equivalent of today’s truck driver) and a year after Simpson’s arrest, Brown nearly lost his life.

On the afternoon of March 26, 1902, around 4:30, Brown headed the two horses pulling his cart towards the New York Central crossing at Eleventh Avenue.  At the same time another two-horse cart driven  by William Sexton of Brooklyn approached from the opposite side.  The two may have distracted each other; but somehow they both entered the tracks as a ten-car freight train roared into the crossing.

The New York Times reported that Brown “was badly injured, four horses were hurt, and two wagons were demolished” as a result of the accident.   Brown and the other man in his cart, Charles Russell, were thrown out and Brown was removed to Roosevelt Hospital “in an unconscious condition.”

By 1911 A. T. Hoevet was doing business from No. 422; but almost assuredly it was the back building he was using.   In April that year he placed an advertisement in Collier’s seeking “Salesmen for My Spark Metal Goods and novelties, gas and pocket lighters, etc.  A. T. Hoevet, Manufacturer and Importer.”  Two years later he incorporated as The Hoevet Manufacturing. Co., Inc. “to manufacture machinery, etc.”

Hoevet was gone within two years, replaced by H. E. Monohan.  He was one of the incorporators of the British-American Sales Corporation that manufactured “machinery, vehicles, tools and hardware.”

Before long, however, the little outbuilding would be used for more celebrated output.   On August 12, 1919 the New-York Tribune mentioned that Nos. 420 and 422 West 46th Street were sold “to Menaconi Bros., sculptors, who erected the Victory Arch at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street.”  The newspaper got the artists’ name slightly wrong.

Raffaello and Guiseppe (Joseph) Menconi had established themselves as major architectural sculptors; already responsible for the magnificent flagpole bases for Carerre & Hastings’ New York Public Library.  The brothers converted the rear building into a studio, adding a one-story addition with skylight to the east.
A narrow passage leads to the unexpected courtyard.

Meanwhile, tenants came and went through the doors of Nos. 420 and 422.  In 1932 Caroline Deoglin lived in No. 420.   On September 26 that year the 65-year old was returning to Manhattan from New Jersey on the West Shore Railroad ferryboat Utica.  At about quarter past midnight the boat headed into the Manhattan slip “with great force,” according to police.   The Times reported that the ferry rammed “ten feet of her bow into the slip bridge and piles…throwing twenty-five of her passengers off their feet and creating considerable excitement among the many other passengers.”

Caroline was among those injured, and was taken to St. Vincent’s hospital “suffering from shock.”

By now the ground floor of No. 422, where horses had been stabled in 1871, was home to a laundry.   On August 2, 1936 B. R. Chrisler, writing in The New York Times, described the odd little courtyard to the rear.

“You enter the rear courtyard at 422 West Forty-sixth Street through a battered but decorative wrought-iron gate, and the first thing you see there will be the crowded clothesline of the impassive Chinese laundryman whose establishment fronts upon the street itself.  Pay no attention to this.  Along the wall to which the line is attached, however, and which runs from the head of a flight of crooked stairs to the rotting fence enclosing the adjacent lot, a slightly mad frieze may be observed silhouetted against the backs of tenements and the gray Manhattan sky: a monstrous penguin, a cupid surf-boarding on tritons, a stone pelican morosely gazing down a long judicial beak.  These are the significant objects.”

The “objects” were sculptural works by the Menconi Brothers.  “On the ground floor (the building is a two-story tumbledown affair, almost too picturesque, like a stage version of Montmartre) a pair of Italian architectural sculptors lead lives of amazing and beautiful detachment among dadoes, gargoyles, rainspouts that are grinning fauns, plaster cornices.”

But the journalist’s interest was not in the Menconi Brothers.  Above their studio, on the second floor, was the “motion-picture studio of Mary Ellen Bute, the Texas girl who produces ‘Synchromies,’ or photographic etudes in which music is ‘accompanied’ by moving abstract forms.”

Bute’s “Synchromy No. 1” had been shown at Radio City Music Hall a year earlier under the title “Rhythm in Light.”  She was now finishing “Synchromy No. 2,” also titled “Seeing Sound,” and the Music Hall had already book it as well.

Mary Ellen Bute’s experimental and avant garde films were not expected to be distributed; however her first film had shown “a small profit.”  She played recorded classical music while the screen exploded with abstract shapes and colors.  “The forms are geometrical, cosmic, faintly vegetative, but never living; in place of chorus girls, Miss Bute will give you a ballet of pyramids.  They are first designed and painted in color, then molded in plaster, then laboriously plotted for motion, frame by frame, and photographed with an elaborate miniature layout,” said The Times.   The concept would find its climax decades later when Walt Disney produced "Fantasia."

The old stable building, now decidedly artists’ studios, became home to Ruth Faison Shaw when she purchased it around 1945.   The artist and educator had established an art school for children in Rome.  She is credited with developing the art of finger painting which she used as a tool for self expression for the students.  Back in America she opened the experimental Shaw School and in 1931 she patented a non-toxic gelatinous paint medium expressly for finger painting, still in use today.

Ruth Faison Shaw christened the studio building “The Old Coach House” and the courtyard “Clinton Court.”  She reportedly filled the building with family heirlooms and portraits.  In addition to working here she staged art exhibitions of floral art, paintings, portraits, decorations and, of course, her finger painting.  Reportedly she sold her artwork to collectors as diverse as Benito Mussolini and Walt Disney.
The exhibition notice of Shaw's October 1956 exhibition featured a sketch of the studio building.  The Menconi Brothers' sculpture wall still survived to the right -- courtesy Tom Winberry


The imaginative Shaw spread romantic tales about the property, telling Meyer Berger in 1955 that she believed the stable was part of a former manor house, possibly owned by relatives of Governor George Clinton around 1809.   In fact, there was no manor house on the property, the stable was not erected until 1871, and neither George Clinton nor his family had any ties to the area.  Nevertheless, the name “Clinton Court” stuck.

Shaw’s interesting stories about Clinton Court extended into the supernatural as well.   She told Berger of a “delicate wraith in crinoline who sometimes materializes on the crooked staircase at dusk on summer evenings."

“The ghost in crinoline, Miss Shaw thinks, is either the Irish wife of the Clintons’ hostler, or Margaret, grandchild of one of the Clintons,” wrote Meyer.

Like the story of Governor Clinton, the stories of Ruth Faison Shaw’s ghosts (there were three of them) live on to this day.

In 1955 the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood beyond the wrought-iron gate was still dangerous and grimy.  Berger wrote “Much of this is gentle fantasy, but in the melancholy dimness of Miss Shaw’s stable-parlor, with the Faisons and Shaws holding you with their eyes out of dark canvas, it is not difficult to forget you are in the heart of the worst West Side slum in 1955.  It is not difficult to enter into the spirit of the stories.”

Within a few years, remarkable change would come to the tenement buildings at Nos. 420 and 422 as well as the stables-turned-studio behind them.  On January 31, 1960 The New York Times reported on the remarkable make-over of the old structures.  The caption below the lead photograph that looked down on the neglected courtyard filled with debris read “A year ago this month, the structures at 420 and 422 West Forty-sixth Street were vacant tenements, with a rubble-strewn courtyard and a carriage house in dilapidated state.”

But that was now completely changed.

A group of investors from outside the real estate field—according to The Times “an artist, a public relations consultant, a magazine editor, a writer and a lawyer—purchased the old buildings.   Their vision was innovative and, considering the still-gritty neighborhood, daring.

“They believe tenants are willing to pay rents comparable to those charged in fashionable areas of Manhattan for apartments in rundown sections that offer more originality in layout and d├ęcor, and are up-to-date in all respects except for the neighborhood,” reported The Times.

‘The remodeled structures have eighteen apartments containing one and one-half, two and one-half and four rooms.  The four-room apartments are two duplexes,” reported the newspaper.  Rents began at $130 per month for the studio apartments, deemed by the newspaper “high-rent.”

Although she was now gone, Ruth Faison Shaw’s legacy lived on.  The Times said “[The buildings] stand on land that is believed to have been owned by DeWitt Clinton, who was elected Governor of New York in 1817 and again in 1824.  The project, which forms a rather elegant enclave, has been named Clinton Court after the Governor.”

The concept of an upscale studio apartment—a single room plus bath—was still relatively unheard of.  The investors gambled on the fact that artists, actors and other locals would be drawn to the charm of the courtyard and the renovated apartments.

They had joined the two former tenement buildings internally (requiring some creative designing since floor levels did not match).  The 46th Street entrances were closed off and an elegant pseudo-Federal doorway above a stoop installed on the courtyard side.
The new entrance of the main buildings opened into the courtyard with a handsome doorway with sidelights and radiant fanlight.

A sensational crime occurred nearby on August 29, 1959.  A Puerto Rican gang, the Vampires, headed by Salvator Agron (known as “the Capeman” or the “Umbrella Man”) swept down on a small group of innocent teens just after midnight in the playground that ran between 45th and 46th Streets.  Two boys were murdered.

The weeks-long press coverage brought unwanted publicity to the neighborhood.  Despite the heavy iron gate that protected the 30-foot passage to Clinton Court, the new investors initially faced a difficult time filling their new apartment building.    Nevertheless, according to current resident Tom Winberry, by 1961 all the units were leased.
The casual passerby would never guess that beyond the iron gates is an idyllic haven.

Winberry and his family occupy the stables/studio duplex.  About eight years ago they enclosed the arched porch, extending their living space.  Inside the Menconi studio space is now a two-story living room with hard-scrabble walls below street level and a brick fireplace that rises to the Menconi’s skylight. 
The Winberrys enclosed the carriage house porch with handsome mahogany French doors around 2005.

The irresistible charm of the arcane courtyard and apartments drew regular New Yorkers and celebrities alike.  Elizabeth Ashley lived in the main building at the same time James Farentino did.  According to Winberry, Neil Simon visited the actress here and he is quick to point out the similarities in the building and the apartment in Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.”  The play opened on Broadway in 1967 starring Ashley.

According to Tom Winberry, a succession of well-known names in entertainment came and went, while other tenants set up camp in their apartments for years.   In 1864 Louise Sorrel was married to Herb Edelman in the living room of the carriage house duplex.  And when David Merrick's head prop man Leo Herbert reluctantly moved out of his space upstairs in the carriage house, he sublet it so several theater figures, including Lynn Redgrave in 1974 while she was playing in “My Fat Friend.”  Immediately following Redgrave, actor John Wood leased the space while playing Sherlock Holmes on Broadway.

One long-time resident, author Jim Davis, claimed that John Barrymore lived in a front apartment.  The tale is questionable considering that the actor died in 1942 with a sizable fortune while the building was still a tenement in a dangerous neighborhood.  Nevertheless, if anyone would know it would have been Davis, who died around 2003, having written a book about the Barrymore family.

Davis also wrote about film legend Myrna Loy and according to Tom Winberry the actress attended the book party here in Clinton Court.

Playwright and music critic Greer Johnson also lived in the main building.  He was the co-author with Charles Sebree of “Mrs. Patterson” which opened on Broadway in 1954 starring Eartha Kitt.   During the Golden Age of Television he was an early writer for live television drama.  Among other shows he worked on NBC’s “Philco-Goodyear Playhouse” and “Kraft Television Theater.”

The writer joined the staff of Cue magazine in 1964 and for nearly a decade held the position of music and dance critic.  Reportedly internal tensions at the publication ensued when he was censured for a remark in one of his critiques.  He resigned in 1973 and on November 2, 1973 the 54-year old’s body was discovered in his Clinton Court apartment; a victim of suicide.

Terror entered Clinton Court in the form of a delivery man on September 18, 2000.  Chris Pollard was buzzed into the courtyard by the Winberry’s babysitter.  When she opened the door to accept the package, the 49-year old Pollard took advantage of the hidden location, knocking her to the ground and holding a knife to her.

As the pair struggled, Tom Winberry arrived home unexpectedly.  As he turned the key, the would-be rapist re-locked the door—twice.  Suddenly, while Winberry stood confused on the porch, the assailant burst through the door and rushed towards to the passage to the street.   Winberry pursued Pollard and was slashed on the face.

The attacker escaped, continuing his delivery schedule unperturbed throughout the day.  Police later arrested him at his home some hours later.

The comings and goings of celebrities was possibly responsible for Woody Allen’s awareness of Clinton Court.  Although he used the location twice as scenes in his movies—“Bullets Over Broadway” and "Deconstructing Harry”—both scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
Above the "crooked stairs," atop the Menconi's addition, residents enjoy yet another hidden garden.

But that may be just as well.  The residents of Clinton Court share a secret courtyard and garden hidden at the end of a 30-foot path behind a heavy iron gate—a picturesque oasis away from the frenzy of Manhattan.  The group of owners/tenants (the buildings were converted to coops around 1987) share the camaraderie of an extended family.

The arcane Clinton Court retains the feeling of “a stage version of Montmartre,” as B. R. Chrisler described it in 1936; or, as Meyer Berger called it in 1955 “New Orleans type.”  Tom Winberry, who has lived here for 42 years, told me “residents rarely leave.”

Who would?

Meyer Berger likened the space to New Orleans.

many thanks to Tom Winberry for suggesting this post and for showing me around
photographs taken by the author

2 comments:

  1. Great post about a fascinating hidden corner of the city. I'm assuming this a private courtyard, or can people wander in and check it out? I'd hate to get arrested or worse, shot at, by an irate or paranoid home owner!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, it's quite private and quite locked, as you can see by the photo of the gates. We don't want you getting arrested, either, Jim! You'll have to try to get a peek through the gate!

      Delete